Violations of the rights of migrants and the silencing of human-rights defenders stem from a mindset of security and control.
On June 14th, off the coast of Greece, a fishing boat carrying hundreds of people seeking to come to Europe sank. At time of writing, 104 people have reportedly been rescued, 81 bodies have been found and up to 500 people remain missing. What exactly happened is still being uncovered—by investigative journalists and human-rights defenders (HRDs)—but some things are already clear.
It is clear that this tragedy could have been avoided. The Greek authorities were alerted to the boat’s distress by the activist group Alarm Phone hours before it capsized. The Hellenic Coastguard was in contact with the passengers on board and had an obligation under international law to intervene, given the clear overcrowding and unseaworthiness of the ship.
It is clear that the disaster was a product of political decisions. While Greece and the European Union, including through Frontex, its border and coastguard agency, have placed the blame for the catastrophe on people-smugglers, they are not the reason people choose to embark on extremely dangerous routes in the hope of reaching the EU. So long as there are no safe, legal and accessible routes for people to take when fleeing conflict and the effects of climate change, or seeking to reunite with loved ones or to search for a better life, there will be a business for smugglers. Only states can open these routes. They choose not to do so.
It is clear that the EU and its member states are prepared to accept the deaths of people at Europe’s borders. This is not the first shipwreck at the edge of the EU—far from it. In October 2013, at least 400 people died when two ships sank off the coast of Lampedusa, Italy. In response, the then president of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, said that ‘we believe that the European Union cannot accept that thousands of people die at its borders’. The Italian government launched Mare Nostrum, a search-and-rescue operation which rescued more than 150,000 people but was ended after only a year. Since then, more than 24,000 people have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean, 18,380 along its central route.
Become part of our Community of Thought Leaders
Get fresh perspectives delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up for our newsletter to receive thought-provoking opinion articles and expert analysis on the most pressing political, economic and social issues of our time. Join our community of engaged readers and be a part of the conversation.
During that time, EU search-and-rescue capacity has been reduced and solidarity, including through civilian search and rescue, repressed. While so-called smugglers are prosecuted, there is no accountability for these mass human-rights violations. These are not accidents. Alongside systematic pushbacks, they are crimes committed with impunity.
Across the EU and at its borders, human-rights defenders who refuse to accept this situation have for years been taking action in solidarity with migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers. Their work saves lives and protects human dignity, yet it is being repressed, undermined and obstructed by states, while they themselves are criminalised, smeared and threatened.
Why is this happening?
The EU has placed migration and international protection within a paradigm of security and control, with little or no space for consideration of human rights. This is clear in the member states’ recent agreement of a new position on asylum, which, if it becomes law, will consolidate some of the most problematic aspects of the EU’s existing asylum system—notably the Dublin rules linking asylum claims to place of entry and the use of border procedures—while adding new rules designed to deter people from coming to the bloc and facilitating returns.
Respect for dignity
Yet the EU is founded on respect for human dignity and human rights. Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union states that here ‘pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail’. All member states are bound by the European Convention on Human Rights. They are obliged to respect the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, which protects inter alia the right to seek asylum. They are all signatories to the major conventions of international human-rights law.
Human-rights defenders across the union are insisting on the obligations that flow from these agreements, and they have a right to do so—to ensure that human rights are respected, protected and fulfilled where they are routinely and callously violated and ignored.
As United Nations special rapporteur on the situation of human-rights defenders, I am mandated to support defenders by promoting the implementation of the UN’s Declaration on HRDs, which was agreed by all its member states at the General Assembly 25 years ago. Article 1 of the declaration states that everyone has the right to strive for the protection and realisation of human rights. Article 12.1 reinforces this, affirming the right to take peaceful action against violations of human rights.
Criminalisation of HRDs
EU states are among the strongest supporters of human-rights defenders and the HRD declaration. Yet since I took up my mandate three years ago, I have formally raised cases of retaliation against migrants’ rights defenders with the governments of Greece, Italy, Poland, Latvia, Cyprus and France. Most of these cases have concerned criminalisation, meaning both the opening of criminal investigations and proceedings against defenders, and the deliberate, systematic conflation of their work with criminal activity through public discourse and leaks via the media.
Support Progressive Ideas: Become a Social Europe Member!
Support independent publishing and progressive ideas by becoming a Social Europe member for less than 5 Euro per month. You can help us create more high-quality articles, podcasts and videos that challenge conventional thinking and foster a more informed and democratic society. Join us in our mission - your support makes all the difference!
Other cases have involved administrative restrictions or sanctions placed on organisations, which also form part of the criminalising narrative defenders face, as well as legislative changes making it more difficult—in some cases practically impossible—for migrants’ rights groups to do their work.
While this retaliation is being carried out by individual states, it cannot be reduced to their national context. The laws most frequently used to criminalise defenders stem from the EU’s ‘Facilitator’s Package’, the legal framework adopted by the EU in 2002 to define the offence of facilitating an unauthorised entry, transit or residence and to set out related criminal sanctions. While seeking to address people smuggling, this contains important inconsistencies with international standards and has provided a basis for the criminalisation of solidarity.
Article 12.2 of the HRD declaration places an obligation on states to protect people exercising these rights from retaliation. When it comes to migrants’ rights defenders, EU states—with the general acquiescence of the EU’s institutions—are however doing exactly the opposite. Violations of the rights of migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers are taking place on a scale which, as the Council of Europe commissioner for human rights, Dunja Mijatović, said yesterday, is now ‘so frequent that they hardly register in the public consciousness’.
At least some EU states appear comfortable with this, and the silencing and smearing of human-rights defenders has become a tactic to ensure things don’t change.